- Thinking Diverse Futures from a Carbon Present
Our collective human ability to know what we mean by “the present” and “the future” has never been more vexed. To cite design critic Tony Fry, because of “defuturing,” that is, our unsustainable practices, “we are now at a point when it can no longer be assumed that we, en masse, have a future” (2009, 1). Many important thinkers have shown that our age is breaking the speed barrier. Under our current “dictatorship of speed,” as Paul Virilio might put it, we are “too dazed by the speed and the shock of the collapse to reflect properly upon the crisis and develop adequate political responses to it” (Hassan 2011, 399-400). Or, following Bernard Stiegler, we are unable to grasp that speed is prior to time and space and indeed, determines them. The implications of the “originariness” of speed are enormous:
Recognizing the priority of speed allows us to move away from the conception of time as an overarching, stable, homogenous framework in which things happen and to acknowledge the complex heterogeneous forces of mobility, velocity and acceleration out of which it is composed.(Gere 2004, 54)
Critical theory around speed and time has tended to focus on various forms of technology (Heidegger: atomic warfare; Blanchot: “disaster” as disorientation; Stiegler: biotechnology and real-time computing), but little has been written yet on how anthropogenic climate change in particular has radically altered perceptions of time, and indeed, the flow of time itself. Optimistic climate scientists and policy-makers in the present—let us say a carbon present—continue to develop decadal schemes for carbon reduction and mitigation as they refer to a diversified energy portfolio for the future, a future that they seem relatively confident in identifying and linking with market cycles.1 Yet in the most brutal sense, it is already too late to speak of, [End Page 195] or better, to write of a present as if this were distinct from something that is going to happen in the future, however far or near this might be. Climate change has already happened—indeed, strictly speaking it has never not happened—and the earth has already been radically changed from the way it was, in relatively stable terms for a long past, a past of at least ten thousand years.2 Our need to conceive of a present whose limits we can define—that is, perhaps, as a carbon present—is hard-wired into our neurons. Surely, then, we must interrogate what is meant by “the present” as well as what modalities of potential hybridity are to be thought in the future. This essay is a speculative attempt to open up this problem without a resolution.
When does this carbon present begin and at what point might we say it has ended? Since the current “carbon economy” is, as Allan Stoekl, among others, has so eloquently explored, intrinsically tied to human energy, production and life itself—it is something like a total system. When energy is biopolitical, power is biopower, put otherwise. The gradual or abrupt replacement of this political economy with another one—whether singular as in the (failed) promise of a “hydrogen economy” or, more practically some would say, with a hybrid model (“no single silver bullet”)—must necessarily have profound causes and effects beyond the “inputs.” This seems a crucial area for critical thought, not because humanists should or could become futurologists (developing a predictive-technological discourse), but in a more basic sense: the very sense of how we think climate change.
Here, then, are three possible presents that I will link with corresponding futures:3
The present—let us say an anthropological present that will lead, perhaps inevitably, to the age that has been called the Anthropocene—begins around 992,000 years ago as Homo erectus rises in Olorgesailie in the African Rift Valley. This is a rough estimate, since very obviously we cannot point [End Page 196] to a single originary moment if we want to follow this hypothesis.4 Yet the temptation to represent origins is irresistible.
Recall, here, the strange temporality of the opening sequence in the film 2001: A Space...